BBK Magazine 41

200th Anniversary Edition

Blood, Money and Belonging

Anthony Bale, Professor of Medieval Studies

‘Blood: Uniting & Dividing’ and ‘Jews, Money, Myth’ are two major exhibitions recently hosted by the Jewish Museum London that drew on the research and expertise of Birkbeck’s Professor of Medieval Studies, Anthony Bale, and Professor David Feldman, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.

“What’s more levelling than the blood flowing through our veins?”

Museums play a vital role in the way we understand, think and form opinions about the world. When presented with carefully curated objects or records, visitors can travel through space and time to see the hopes, dreams, trials and tribulations of others. Anthony was determined that these exhibitions would deliver new, provocative and nuanced ways of questioning the representation and understanding of Jewish people, both historically and in the present day.

“We came up with the topics of blood and money because they are common to all religious traditions and very human,” Anthony explains. “What’s more levelling than the blood flowing through our veins and our relationships with money? But there’s also a long history of antisemitic narratives around both topics, so it felt important to explore them and create teachable moments for the public.”

The ‘Blood’ exhibition investigated literary and historical perspectives of Jewish-Christian relations, with Anthony contributing expertise on medieval blood libel and ritual murder, circumcision, the portrayal of Jewish characters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and theories of antisemitism. The ‘Money’ exhibition included material on the medieval representation of Jews, the history of Judas Iscariot and the role of the Anglo-Jewish community in finance.

Anthony argues that throughout history, cultural attitudes toward Jewish people can be used as a barometer for attitudes towards immigration, foreigners, whiteness and about whether Britain is a Christian country: “The research and artefacts presented deal with major ideas around racism, diversity and multiculturalism, which we wanted to share with youth groups, schoolchildren and non-Jewish visitors. It felt important to share the variety of Jewish narratives and experiences in Britain, not least because Jewish museums in the past either tended to focus on the Holocaust or on telling stories of good Jews who became worthy citizens. We were trying to broaden that and complicate it.”

Both exhibitions generated unprecedented critical acclaim. The ‘Blood’ exhibition attracted over 11,000 people and was toured to several international museums. ‘Money’ reached 290 million people through press and media, won the Museums Association ‘Museums Change Lives’ award, and had approximately 22,000 visitors. In the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, Anthony’s work was graded as ‘world-leading’ in terms of impact, originality, significance and rigour.

Continuing his work in understanding medieval culture, Anthony is currently working towards new exhibitions with several museum partners. He is looking forward to the publication later this year of his new research in A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages, encompassing everything from the marvels of medieval Ethiopia, to silk routes and walking tours of Istanbul and Jerusalem.